Manchester United’s board, it was said, moved to fire David Moyes early so the new manager might enjoy a head start in the transfer market this summer. One wonders, with just over two weeks until the World Cup begins in Brazil, whether the club’s executives have considered the meaning of irony. Indeed, Louis van Gaal’s appointment, although widely praised by players, media and supporters alike, is set to confer little immediate edge, necessitating a late market scramble in which executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is patently ill-equipped to succeed.
van Gaal’s delayed appointment, together with this summer’s tournament, means that United must instigate summer business without the Dutchman’s direct involvement – or potentially wait until late summer for the 62-year-old to start his new job in earnest. It is a crucial point, with Woodward’s lack of market connections brutally exposed last year, and Sir Alex Ferguson now largely marginalised within the United hierarchy.
In fact the club has little room for manoeuvre. van Gaal is tied up until mid-July and the club’s pre-season tour commences at the Rose Bowl just 11 days after the World Cup concludes.
United’s busy schedule will divert focus away from the market. Training will have officially recommenced for non-World Cup bound players more than a week before United faces LA Galaxy in Pasedena. The tour schedule potentially concludes on 4 August at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami. Meanwhile, the Premier League resumes on 16 August, with the transfer window closing at midnight on 1 September.
The effect, with much of the Moyes-era scouting and preparatory worked now comprehensively ditched, is to considerably shorted United’s window, decrease the margin for error, and potentially instigate a last-minute rush for talent that has terrifying echoes of last summer’s farce.
Yet, United can ill afford further transfer gaffes in the coming weeks, no matter how large the supposed budget. After all, the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, together with desperately required midfield restructuring, necessitates a significant influx of new talent.
If Javier Hernández is, as expected, granted a post-World Cup exit, or Danny Welbeck obtains an escape from his “unhappiest season,” United may well need striking reinforcements too. This is to say little about the future of wingers Nani, Antonio Valenica and Ashley Young. In an era of evolving tactics, van Gaal’s belief in width remains unshaken, but his faith in the aforementioned underperforming trio is surely far less profound.
Set aside potential disruption among United’s forwards and van Gaal is seeking an experienced central defender, new left back, two central midfielders and a wide player as a minimum. In a summer set to be busier than most the club can ill afford time lost. All of which also leaves United prey to the whims of predatory agents and rivals seeking a premium from a club desperate for reinforcements.
Still, the Dutchman’s arrival has at least brought a swift conclusion to speculation surrounding a move for Cesc Fabregas – a love long unrequited – or the outstanding Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos. Reds of a more cynical bent have long suspected the latter of playing United for fools amid ongoing contract negotiations with the Bavarians. After all, the fool is a role Woodward ably perfected last summer.
Nor is the Reds move for the £30 million Southampton left-back Luke Shaw now guaranteed, with Chelsea offering genuine competition for the 18-year-old’s signature. The price, hefty contract demands, and player’s lack of top flight experience, rank the transfer as one of United’s riskiest in recent times, even if Shaw has the potential to garner a place among the game’s élite. The fall-back full-back options of Alexander Buttner, a re-signed Patrice Evra, or a plethora of alternates, brings no guarantee of renewed defensive solidity.
Meanwhile, Moyes’ answer to the club’s ongoing central midfield problem, Sporting’s William Carvalho, is now available on the open market. United is seemingly no longer the front-runner for the 22-year-old’s signature, if interested at all. And yet competition for midfielders will be fierce this summer, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Barcelona each seeking world-class reinforcement.
Predictably an information vacuum has left the international media to file a raft of stories forecasting United’s swoop for a clutch of Dutch players: Daley Blind, Jordy Clasie and Bruno Martins Indi. There are column inches to fill, but few of them are given to real substance.
The truth, however, is that United remains far from completing a significant amount of rebuilding this summer, with the new manager required to deliver Champions League qualification as a bare minimum in 2015. Indeed, the erosion of United’s brand value, if not yet the share price, leaves the club’s bean counters on sharp alert for any sign of impending failure next season. Moyes understands better than most that there is little patience for the long-term view insincerely spun after the Scot’s appointment.
Brilliant though van Gaal was proven at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern and the Dutch national team, he has rarely suffered for a lack of raw ingredients at some of Europe’s finest clubs. The veteran secured the 1995 Champions League with a youthful Ajax outfit, but it is a process for which van Gaal does not boast the luxury of time at Old Trafford.
All the more reason to arm the new man with high-class acquisitions - and the time to bed players into club, squad, and team. van Gaal is seemingly unlikely to enjoy the latter. The former is open to significant question.
It leaves the club on the edge and supporters increasingly restless at the ongoing lack of communication, let alone market activity. Eight years of Glazer ownership has instilled an acute sense of cynicism towards the club’s penchant for transfer market spin over real substance.
This sense of distrust is now firmly bound to the executive vice chairman, who is an expert in briefing the nation’s fourth estate, but seemingly inept at executing on key transfer market deals.
Yet, amid the scrabble to reinforce United’s ailing squad it is curious that United should choose the moment to laud Woodward’s appointment as “chairman of the European Club Association marketing and communications working group.” The former J.P. Morgan banker is an expert in the global marketing of United’s brand. Communications is often lacking.
It is an observation that can also be made of United’s focus. Once again the club is seemingly left behind. Woodward has little time to prove the doubters wrong.